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Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translator: Deborah Smith)

The Vegetarian is a novel about non-conformity in a highly conforming society. In the opening section of the book, Yeong-hye, an ‘ordinary wife’ decides to become vegetarian after experiencing a recurrent bad dream. The people around her, her husband and wider family, do not understand. Apparently it is uncommon in South Korean society for people other than Buddhist monks to become vegetarian. What follows are three connected stories, beginning with Yeong-hye then moving on to her brother-in-law and then her sister. Each is affected by Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is slightly different way.

The story begins with Yeong-hye, as described by her husband: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Yet what follows is the story of a woman who is anything but unremarkable. Yeong-hye suffers from extremely vivid and disturbing dreams. Dreams of blood and slabs of meat, dreams of sucking down blood, blood on her skin and clothes. These dreams drive Yeong-hye to become a vegetarian; she can no longer face eating meat and can barely sleep, she is so unsettled by them. Her husband reacts without understanding, he can only see that Yeong-hye is behaving strangely and this strangeness is quite the opposite of what her husband desires. Instead he desires a plain and ordinary life. Yeong-hye’s behaviour does not fit into this.

Image result for the vegetarian han kangThat Yeong-hye’s husband and her family find her switch to vegetarianism disturbing becomes quite apparent very quickly. What I found disturbing as a reader was the reaction to Yeong-hye’s choice: no one attempts to understand her, they only seek to force her to comply. In the case of her husband, this means ignoring the problem and trying to ignore Yeong-hye, as he describes here:

“I sometimes told myself that, even though the woman I was living with was a little odd, nothing particularly bad would come of it. I thought I could get by perfectly well just thinking of her as a stranger, or no, as a sister, or even a maid, someone who puts food on the table and keeps the house in good order.    “

This ignorance descends into marital rape, which her husband describes in such a matter of fact way it made me feel slightly sick. In the case of Yeong-hye’s family their approach to her refusal to eat meat is an attempt at force feeding, followed by physical violence on the part of her father, which results in Yeong-hye slitting her wrist with a fruit knife. Consequently Yeong-hye is admitted to hospital and, following this, a mental institution. By this time Yeong-hye is desperately thin and emotionally distant. No one can reach her, and she clearly doesn’t want to be reached by anybody.

The story then moves to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist who becomes sexually obsessed with Yeong-hye. He confesses to have always been more attracted to Yeong-hye than his wife, and his wife’s casual mention of Yeong-hye’s ‘Mongolian Mark’ on her back send him spiraling into an obsession over which he has no control. This obsession takes the form of a particular sexual fantasy: the idea of painting Yeong-hye’s body with flowers and recording someone (himself) having sex with her. He cannot get this vision out of his mind. Against his instincts, he approaches Yeong-hye (now released from the mental institution and reintegrating into society) and asks her to model for his art. To his surprise, she agrees. Though his motives are sexual in nature, he is surprised at his own reaction to Yeong-hye once he has painted her:

“Only then did he realize what it was that had shocked him when he’d first seen her lying prone on the sheet. This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her – rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.”

Eventually he follows through on his desire, finally recording himself having sex with Yeong-hye. It is at this point his activity is discovered by his wife In-hye. Both Yeong-hye and he are captured and sent to a mental institution.

Here the story turns to In-hye as she tries to come to terms with what has happened in her own life, and the slow descent into madness of her younger sister Yeong-hye. In-hye’s story is the least impassioned of the three, and perhaps the most poignant. In-hye reflects on Yeong-hye’s state as she visits the hospital on the day they attempt to insert a feeding tube into Yeong-hye’s nose. By this point Yeong-hye is convinced she has transformed from something human into a plant, that she need only plant herself by her hands into the cool soil of the forest for her transformation to be complete. We see In-hye struggling between what she is supposed to do (force feed Yeong-hye) and what Yeong-hye wants her to do (let her go). She reminisces on their childhood, the way in which Yeong-hye had been abused by their father and her cowardice in never confronting it. As though she could. This culminates in a realization that the whole of her life, she had never really lived. As she describes here:

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure.”

These three stories, approaching the subject in very different ways, show three characters undergoing a process of self-discovery, of transformation. Each character confronts the social norm, and finds themselves set against it. In the case of Yeong-hye the process is violent, disturbing and ultimately self-defeating. Is she mad? It is a question the book neither asks nor answers. Yet Yeong-hye represents the person standing at odds with the social contract, the silent promise we each make not to rock the boat, not to be too individual, to behave in accordance with the wishes of others. In the case of her brother in law, it is his sexual desire which is at odds with the world; his desire to take part in a physical union which is extraordinary and consuming. In-hye desires only to live, but is restrained by fear from doing so. Only in the end, and through the extremity of Yeong-hye’s actions is she able to let go.

The Vegetarian is an astonishing book, powerful and magnetic and deeply disturbing. I found it inspiring and terrifying in equal parts; in particularly Yeong-hye’s story which, seeming so ordinary from a ‘western’ viewpoint, the way in which the people surrounded her reacted is perhaps a sadly familiar story. There was a disturbing lack of understanding, a lack of desire to understand which was driven solely by the need for things to go on as painlessly as possible. Yeong-hye forces those around her, reader included, to consider what it means to live, and not just to live but to live a life which has meaning and personal service, not just for the good of others. A read as extraordinary as its cover (which is stunning).  

Saturday 21 February 2015

Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy

When I was first branching out into reading more non-fiction, I thought it would be good to read some travel writing. I’d enjoyed the nature books so much, that travel seemed like a natural next step. I remember browsing the shelves at Waterstones and seeing lots of titles that looked fascinating, including those by Sibylle Bedford and Freya Stark who I suspect I will be investigating at some point in the future. In the end it was Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy that most caught my imagination, combining my dual loves of travel and bicycles (though my own bicycle is feeling a little neglected these days).

Full Tilt represents the diary that Dervla Murphy kept when she undertook a journey from Ireland to India by bicycle. Well, not exactly by bicycle; there’s a reason why this book is titled Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle as much of the time Murphy isn’t able to cycle: either due to the quality of the roads or weather conditions. At the time, Murphy was a mere 32 years old and she travelled alone. The year was 1963, and the journey was one she had envisaged since the age of ten when, as she explains, she received both a bicycle and an atlas as a birthday present. This journey was something of a lifelong dream, and it is a credit to Murphy’s self-will that it was a dream she was determined to fulfil.

This whole book is a testament to Murphy’s self-determination, her spirit and openness, her willingness to push herself to the absolute limits. By the time I was around a third of the way through the book, Murphy was my heroine. She is an amazing woman, the kind of woman whose feats should be known to all, a role model whose name should fall off the lips along with the other great explorers, distinguished by the fact that she didn’t fail. I’m gibbering, I know, but if there was ever an example of fearlessness, she is definitely it. In the course of her journey she suffers multiple vehicle accidents, is attacked by wolves as she describes with aplomb here (note: Roz is the name of her bicycle):

“It was soon after 6pm when, leaving Roz on the truck, I set off along a convenient cart-track through the trees, where the snow had been packed down by sleighs collecting fire-wood. It was some fifteen minutes later when a heavy weight hurled itself at me without warning.

I stumbled, dropping the torch that I had been carrying, then recovered my balance, and found one animal hanging by its teeth from the left shoulder of my wind-cheater, another worrying at the trousers around my right ankle, and a third standing about two yards away, looking on, only its eyes visible in the starlight.

Ironically enough, I had always thought that there was something faintly comical in the idea of being devoured by wolves. It had seemed the sort of thing that doesn’t really happen…So now, as I braced my body against the hanging weight, slipped off my glove, pulled my .25 out of my pocket, flicked up the safety catch and shot the first animal through the skull, I was possessed by the curious conviction that none of this was true, while at the same time all my actions were governed by sheer panic.”

In addition she suffers numerous rape attempts (which she dispatches with similar aplomb, if not loss of life), several broken ribs on being struck accidentally by the butt of a gun, is stung by a scorpion followed, the very next day, by hornets, near-fatal sunstroke, almost drowning and near starvation. It is astonishing that she lived to share the tale of her journey, but her strength of character and extraordinary determination carried her through. And yes, I am gibbering again.

Murphy herself is at pains to point out how ordinary she is, perhaps to stave off the kind of heroine-worship I’m falling into here. As she explains in the beginning:

“This is perhaps the moment to contradict the popular fallacy that a solitary woman who undertakes this sort of journey must be ‘very courageous’. Epictetus put it in a nutshell when he said, ‘For it is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship.’ And because in general the possibility of physical danger does not frighten me, courage is not required; when a man tries to rob or assault me or when I find myself, as darkness is falling, utterly exhausted and waist-deep in snow half-way up a mountain pass, then I am afraid – but in such circumstances it is the instinct of self-preservation, rather than courage, that takes over.’

I think she is too modest. I think she is both a courageous and fearless woman, and we could all learn a lot from her. Perhaps Murphy, here, reflects a more altruistic society in which it was not considered ‘strange’ for women to pursue their dreams, to take risks and seek adventure. Perhaps the fact that she has to mention it is proof that we’re not there yet.

There, I’ve gibbered enough. Now to her journey. We join Murphy as she enters Europe and quickly she covers the period during which she cycles through Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and into Turkey. Much of this early part of the journey is covered in quite superficial detail (wolves excepted) though the journey was doubtless eventful and more difficult than anticipated. Problems with roads and difficult weather conditions meant that much of the time she was unable to cycle, but instead travelled by bus or by truck.

The story really starts as she enters Afghanistan, a country for which she develops a real and palpable fondness. Everywhere she goes she discovers spectacular landscapes, as she describes here:

“We left Kabul at 7am in perfect cycling weather with a brilliant, warm sun, a cool breeze behind u and the air crisp and clear. Beyond a doubt today’s run up the Ghorband valley was the most wonderful cycle-ride of my life. Surely this must have been the Garden of Eden – it’s so beautiful that I was too excited to eat the lunch my hostess had packed for me and spent the day in a sort of enchanted trance. High hills look down on paddy-fields and vivid patches of young wheat and neat vineyards; on orchards of apricot, peach, almond, apple and cherry trees smothered in blossom, and on woods of willows, ash, birch and sinjit, their new leaves shivering and glistening in the wind and sun. Lean, alert youths, their clothes all rags and their bearing all pride, guard herds of cattle and nervous, handsome horses and donkeys with woolly, delicately tripping foals, and fat-tailed sheep with hundreds of bouncing lambs, and long-haired goats whose kids are among the most delightful of young animals.”

Of the people she has much to say of their kindness, of their desperate poverty, of their culture, their manners and their intelligence, not to mention their smell! It is apparent that the Afghan people won her over with their sharing and considerate nature. She discovers a similar fondness both for the land and the people of Pakistan, and a somewhat more reserved feeling about India, though the roads, apparently, were much improved.

In a time where all you hear about Afghanistan are references to the Taliban and terrorism (or drugs), and when the Muslim religion is under such intense criticism and pressure, this book is a real antidote to the constant negative press. Murphy has much to say of the joint stresses caused to Afghanistan by the presence of Western powers and Communist Russia, much positive commentary on the Muslims she encounters, their sobriety, kindness, generosity and politeness. She has much to say about the impact of the religion on the territory, as well as the status of women in that society. Some of what she says is quite surprising (even to herself) yet always considered. That she came to love both Afghanistan and Pakistan, despite the privations of her journey, is apparent in all the wonderful things she has to say about those countries. It is a fascinating insight into a land and a time when globalisation had done, perhaps, slightly less damage.

Full Tilt is a humorous, soulful and inspiring read. Murphy herself embodies a kind of openness which is rarely encountered, and a kind of determination that ensures that all her experiences, even the difficult ones, are positive. There is no mawkishness here, no self-pity. She endures, and she thrives in her endurance. I thoroughly enjoyed this travel diary, and am eager to read some more. I hear that Murphy still travels with her bicycle (a new one, I suspect) even though she is now in her seventies. What a heroine! I’m so glad she was able to undertake this journey and, more so, share it with the rest of us. A name I will be promoting with tedious regularity (and I hear she has a new book out this year. I can’t wait!). As a double-positive, it may have inspired me to get back on my bike!

Sunday 15 February 2015

Reading Woolf: The Years

In embarking on a thorough reading of Woolf’s works, The Years was one of the books I was most interested in. I’m not sure why this is; perhaps it was something to do with reading Woolf’s diaries in which she spent so much time talking about her book ‘The Pargiters’, as it was originally titled; a book she spent a considerable amount of time writing and about which she was so conflicted. Coming down from something as extraordinary as The Waves, it’s perhaps not surprising that this change in direction caused Woolf so much angst. This was also the book that Leonard Woolf lied to her about for fear that telling her it was a failure would send her spiralling into a further bout of depression. This alone generates a certain degree of intrigue.

The Years is an historical novel, charting the fortunes of a family – The Pargiters of the original title – over the pre and post Great War period. The Pargiters are a ‘well to do’ family, well connected and reasonably wealthy. The novel opens as Mrs Pargiter, who has been unwell for some time, is dying. Awaiting her death are her husband Colonel Abel Pargiter (who we learn, very early on, has a mistress) and her children: Eleanor, Morris, Martin, Milly, Delia and Rose. Edward, the eldest Pargiter, is away at university. As Mrs Pargiter dies we learn key distinctions in the personalities of the children, with two in particular standing out: Eleanor who reacts with compassion both towards her mother and to her small sister Rose who has suffered a fright, and Delia who is the only one who reacts with relief and an apparent lack of sadness at her mother’s death.

“’It has come,’ Delia said to herself, ‘it has come!’ An extraordinary feeling of relief and excitement possessed her. Her father was pacing from one drawing-room to the other; she followed him in; but she avoided him. They were too much alike; each knew what the other was feeling.”

Delia senses both her own desire for her mother’s death and her father’s, whilst the others react more standardly with tears and open sadness. It is a notable distinction, created with a few, well placed, sentences.

Having established the character of Delia so clearly, she then disappears from the book almost entirely until the end. Aside from hints of some sort of disgrace, we know nothing of what happens to Delia after this point. Instead the book focuses largely on Eleanor, the eldest daughter who stays with her father, who never marries, who travels the world by herself. It is, perhaps, the most interesting part of The Years that it focuses largely on the fortunes of the female characters – these being the people least likely to achieve anything, the ones who would stay home from the war, who would not sit at the Bar or enter commerce or government or hold a distinguished post at a university. We learn about Kitty, a cousin of the Pargiters, whom Edward wished to marry but who married Lord Lasswade in line with her mother’s wishes. There is always the sense about Kitty that she suited the life that she chose (or was chosen for her) yet it was not the life that she wanted. There are Sara (also known as Sally, I found this very confusing) and Maggie; more cousins, one of which married a Frenchman and the other of which is a storyteller, a kind of fantasist who doesn’t seem to do anything in particular (yet she is very interesting all the same). There is Rose who goes to prison for throwing a brick, Rose the activist who appears, like Delia, more often through rumour and reference than in direct presence.

Through the eyes of these female characters, disenfranchised and limited in their options despite their wealth and status, we see the world changing. Yet it is Eleanor, I think, who embodies the most interest in this book. Eleanor is there from beginning to end. She suffers ennui, she furrows her small path through life always observing if not partaking in the events that occur. She reflects on subjects like marriage, like life, like war yet there is always the sense that Eleanor is outside all of these things. As she reflects here:

“My life, she said to herself. That was odd, it was the second time that evening that somebody had talked about her life. And I haven’t got one, she thought. Oughtn’t a life to be something you could handle and produce? – a life of seventy odd years. But I’ve only the present moment, she thought. Here she was alive, now, listening to the fox-trot. Then she looked round. There was Morris; Rose; Edward with his head thrown back talking to a man she did not know. I’m the only person here, he thought, who remembers how he sat on the edge of my bed that night, crying – the night Kitty’s engagement was announced. Yes, things came back to her. A long strip of life lay behind her. Edward crying, Mrs. Levy talking; snow falling; a sunflower with a crack in it; the yellow omnibus trotting along the Bayswater Road. And I thought to myself, I’m the youngest person in this omnibus; now I’m the oldest…Millions of things came back to her. Atoms danced apart and massed themselves. But how did they compose what people called a life? She clenched her hands and felt the hard little coins she was holding. Perhaps there’s “I” at the middle of it, she thought; a knot; a centre; and again she saw herself sitting at her table drawing on the blotting-paper, digging little holes from which spokes radiated. Out and out they went; thing followed thing, scene obliterated scene. And then they say, she thought, “We’ve been talking about you!””

Is The Years a failure? Compared to the poetic masterpiece that is The Waves, I think I can understand the judgement. The Years is a long book, yet it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Unlike Woolf’s more challenging works (and arguably, brilliant), it is a very easy book to read, quite entertaining and it flows very easily. Despite its length, it didn’t take very long to read. So it felt lightweight, compared to her other works. And this is perhaps the source of the problem with The Years, it fails by comparison.

That doesn’t mean to say I felt the book a failure in itself. It includes Woolf’s excellent characterisation, her insights and ranging eye. She continues to stab characters down in a few words, pinning them like a butterfly to a board with lightning quick observations. Her focus on the feminine experience, remembering that this covered a period during which women did not have the vote, and she shows how it is possible – through the characters of Eleanor and Rose – to exercise a political influence in spite of the lack of traditional franchisement. It is a lesson, perhaps, to those who throw out those pithy remarks about voting ‘I don’t know why people don’t vote; it’s their only chance to have a say in the political landscape’ when in fact this book shows that there are a myriad ways to be politically active, rather than simply putting an ‘X’ in a box once every 5 years. Perhaps the problem with The Years is that it covers so much ground that the focus become lost, the meaning hovers somewhere in the air above the book and its power is curtailed as a result.

I don’t think The Years is a failure. I think if I had read it before Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse or The Waves I would have thought more highly of it. And perhaps it is one of those books that benefits from re-reading, from slow and detailed examination. It was a pleasurable book to read, enjoyable in a way Woolf’s works often aren’t. It wasn’t a failure, and I don’t think it was a book that Woolf should have been depressed about. The problem is that Woolf had set the bar so high. For any novelist of calibre, this book stands up as an accomplished piece of work. For a writer of Woolf’s calibre, perhaps it does not.

The Years receives an enjoyable 7 out of 10 Biis.